Darrin Thies

Darrin Thies has partnered with the NRCS to address environmental concerns on his Jackson County, Ill., farm. 

AVA, Ill. — Darrin Thies has a lot of highly erodible land on his farm — all of it.

That’s why he approached the Natural Resources Conservation Service a few years ago. The agency has provided assistance in helping him keep his soil where it belongs.

“It’s really been a pleasant experience,” he said. “The paperwork can be overwhelming at times. But I’ve been very pleased.”

He is among thousands of farmers who are taking advantage of the range of programs offered by NRCS. In his case, it is largely the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP. His 1,000-acre farm is situated among the rolling hills of Jackson County, Illinois, in the Kinkaid Lake watershed. Erosion is a constant threat.

“We’ve implemented grass waterways, WASCOBs and streambank stabilization, among other things,” Thies said. “We’ve gotten into a little bit of the pasture management on the grazing side, and a winter feeding station.”

WASCOBs — or water and sediment control basins — represent a control practice eligible for incentive payments under EQIP.

Thies is a strong proponent of federal assistance for practices put into place to alleviate erosion and other land-damaging problems.

“EQIP is our flagship program,” said Paige Buck of NRCS. “EQIP gets conservation practices on the ground to fix things. Everybody has problems, whether they have flat ground or sloping ground. There’s always something you can fix. EQIP is the fix-it program.”

As in Thies’ operation, EQIP is designed to provide help for livestock producers as well as grain farmers.

“We help with livestock, grazing, organic. There are so many niches,” Buck said. “EQIP has a way to make a difference in a lot of areas.”

No two farms are treated alike, both in practice and funding. That’s because of variables that exist across a large geographic area.

“It is dependent on location, geography,” Buck said. “Things cost more around Chicago. It’s so variable. We do have payment schedules. It can get complicated, but it’s worth it. You’re getting money from the government, and that money is coming from taxes. You have to keep records — there is a lot of paperwork.”

Once a producer works with a conservationist to address a problem on the farm, the farmer may turn to the Conservation Stewardship Program to maintain the improvements. While CRP (the Conservation Reserve Program) came out decades ago with the purpose of taking marginal land out of agricultural production, CSP involves payments made to producers to continue with conservation practices on working land.

It has a bumpy history, beginning as the Conservation Security Program.

“It’s been changed a lot. It’s a reward for all the farmers out there who are taking care of their land,” Buck said. “We wanted to find a way to reward them and incentivize them.

“You have to maintain the practices. Every year you pick something new that you’ve never done before. We’re always trying to push farmers to do a little more.”

Thies grows corn, soybeans and wheat on his acreage. In addition, he has a 100-head Angus cow-calf herd, and utilizes cover crops, mainly cereal rye and triticale. He has received assistance on soil retention as well as conservation grazing techniques. He no-tills all his acres where he grows grains.

His participation in NRCS programs was triggered by problems reported along the Kinkaid Lake watershed. The 1,750-acre reservoir abutting the Shawnee National Forest was being filled with silt washing in from the hills surrounding it. Thies partnered with NRCS to mitigate soil loss into a waterway feeding the lake.

“It started out as a specific job, a rather large waterway that was no longer working the way it was intended,” he said. “We went in and re-did it. It washed ditches on both sides of it. A lot of dirt was in the middle of it. We pulled dirt out of it.”

He gets regular visits by conservationists. Most of his contracts are for a few years.

“The work is getting done. I have no issues,” Thies said.

Nat Williams is Southern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.